It was known as Goosetown then, a place where bulrushes, marshes, sand bars and shallow pools provided a refuge for waterfowl and a paradise for hunters.
But to entrepreneur Phineas Banning and the followers of Mormon leader Brigham Young, the quiet sanctuary in what is now Wilmington was the genesis of a lucrative trade arrangement that sent hundreds of covered wagons stuffed with goods and supplies from California east to the religious pioneers settling the Utah Territory.
Using hand pumps and mud scows, Banning and his men sucked away the shallow pools, filled the marshes and constructed a pier. The landing, at the foot of what is now Avalon Boulevard, replaced Banning's shipping wharf five miles down the channel in San Pedro, which he was forced to abandon after a violent storm ripped it apart.
Within a year, in 1859, wagon freight trains from Goosetown--renamed Wilmington by Banning, after his native Wilmington, Del.--were arriving in Salt Lake City daily. Soon, stagecoaches followed, transporting Mormon pioneers from California and overseas to their religious Zion--the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Today, the marshes are covered with concrete and macadam, and the bustling seaport has been absorbed by the 7,000-acre Port of Los Angeles. The railroad has long since replaced the covered wagon, and there are no Mormon trade routes from Wilmington.
But to descendants of the pioneers who helped settle the Utah Territory and establish the trade routes from the West Coast harbor, Goosetown remains very dear.
"Both of my parents' parents were pioneers," said Romola Lee Nichols, a Palos Verdes Estates grandmother who is working on a book on the role Mormons played in developing the port at Wilmington and San Pedro. "We go back to the wagon trains, the handcarts and the oxen."
Four years ago, Nichols and the South Los Angeles County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, a nonprofit organization of descendants of the early settlers of the Utah Territory, erected a monument on Avalon Boulevard near the site of the old Banning pier.
The heavy granite marker honored the Utah pioneers who were instrumental in establishing the trade routes from the harbor and made special mention of the Mormon Civil War volunteers who were assigned by Gen. Richard C. Drum to live on a small island in the harbor and build barges, tugboats and lighters beginning in 1862.
The 30-acre island eventually became known as Mormon Island, a designation it maintains today, even though it has since been connected to the mainland at Fries Avenue in Wilmington, has been expanded with the help of material dredged from the harbor and houses a Borax facility rather than a Civil War battalion.
"It is our link with the past," said Nichols, who served as chairwoman of the monument committee and spent four years helping research the history behind it.
But early this year, progress struck Goosetown--and its Mormon roots--once again, this time in the form of Japanese automobiles. The Los Angeles Harbor Department authorized construction of a massive $16-million automobile distribution center on Avalon Boulevard that will handle thousands of Nissan imports.
The small park around the monument was covered with gravel and asphalt, trees were pulled and a tall chain-link fence was erected to keep out unwanted visitors. Caught in the midst of it all was the Utah pioneers monument, which had been yanked from its base and propped on its side about 100 feet from the turmoil.
This month, the Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a two-phase relocation of the historical marker, which means that in a year or two it will be placed several blocks away on a landscaped center divider at Fries Avenue and Pier A Street, an area also being redeveloped by the port.
In the meantime, the marker has been temporarily re-erected on a tiny gravel triangle next to the new distribution center. But even that temporary sanctuary came too late, as vandals got to the monument first, prying off its metal plaque.
"It looked like it had been abandoned," Nichols said, pointing to a series of color snapshots of the toppled monument. "So someone has stolen the plaque. It is just horrible."
The Daughters of Utah Pioneers have no plans to replace the $400 plaque until the monument is moved to its permanent home. Nichols said the group fears the monument's remote location will invite more vandalism, and besides, she said, the Harbor Department positioned the marker so that it faces the huge chain link fences, not traffic passing on Avalon Boulevard.
"That was real dumb," she said.
Michael Lemke, assistant director of property management for the Harbor Department, acknowledged that the monument's current resting place "is not the best location, but it's OK." Lemke said the department regrets that it had to be moved, but he said the port has attempted to accommodate the needs of the historical group.